BY MATTHEW CLARK
Many things can draw people to a piece of media, but what makes them obsess over it? What draws them to dedicate countless hours of their time, learning all of its secrets and sharing them with like-minded individuals? In most cases, the media in question has qualities that strongly attract people to interact with it, things that might even bother so-called nonbelievers. The Souls series of video games is no different.
When Demon’s Souls was released for PS3 in 2010, no one expected it to be received as well as it has been in recent years. Initial reception and critical response was mixed to negative, with critics commenting on the game’s high difficulty and vague plot. Developer From Software was then known in the gaming industry for the Armored Core series. They were a respectable series of games, if not always amazing, so the industry and the public-at-large were not expecting a game like Demon’s Souls from the developer, and as a result they weren’t entirely receptive. But in the years since its release, the game has garnered a cult following which led to three sequels and one spinoff game, and the same qualities critics initially hated, fans eventually came to love and obsess over.
The popularity of the series has even spawned its own sub genre of video game, called “Souls-like”, with many other developers trying to capitalize on the unique qualities that made the Souls series such a hit with games such as Nioh or Lords of the Fallen, to varying degrees of success.
The first thing people new to the series usually notice about the games are their incredibly high degree of difficulty. The games do all they can to punish players, making them think in unexpected ways to conquer challenges. Groups of enemies attacking at once, enemies appearing from around corners, fatal environmental hazards, and monumentally large bosses are just a few of the regular changes players face in these games. But it is this high difficulty that is one of the largest drawing points to the series for players.
As Aleister Hicks, a Florida college student, said via email, their experience with the game is “a fifty-five hour marathon of slamming your head into a brick wall to get the release of dopamine when it finally breaks”.
The games constantly find new ways to challenge you, which may be frustrating, but the challenges are not without adequate reward. Finally reaching the next checkpoint, or beating the boss that you’re stuck on is an immensely satisfying experience, and one that keeps most playing through the struggle.
Beyond the rewarding gameplay, fans also love the aesthetic of the series and how detailed the worlds are.
“The amazing visual design of the characters, enemies, and environments by Hidetaka Miyazaki coupled by excellent scoring by Motoi Sakuraba, Yuka Kitamura, and Bloodborne’s Ryan Amon always begs me to step back in! The deep levels of lore found in these games also never fails to grab hold of me. It gives the game a sense of cohesion and togetherness that beckons me to continue to thread together the loose ends of the story,” Sean Stover, a musician from Mississauga, explained.
“I first found out about Dark Souls because my friends at the time were all playing it and swearing by it,” Hicks said, adding that the fandom that a lot of the series’ fanbase has was instrumental in them actually deciding to pick the game up.
The community has exploded in the years since the release of the first game. There are whole YouTube channels (such as VaatiVidya) dedicated to explaining various aspects of the series’ lore, such as character backstories, plot overviews and hidden secrets within the games, which only goes to show the amount of extra dedication fans have to learn more about their favourite series. The community has created inside jokes, such as Fashion Souls, where players will create the most extravagant outfits for their characters by mixing and matching various pieces of clothing, something that may or may not have been the intention of From Software but has become a staple of the community nonetheless.
The overall experience of the series is shaped as much by the games as by the community interaction that happens between players. “My favourite part about the community probably comes down to the sense of pride and togetherness. When you meet someone else who is also a huge fan of the series they always love talking lore, theories, and experiences with you. A lot of times you’ll say ‘My favourite game is Dark Souls’ and you’ll hear a response like ‘Oh that game was too tough for me!’ On the odd occasion that you find someone who also shares your level of fanaticism there’s this nice feeling of understanding, knowing you both had to fight your way through the same frustrating, yet rewarding, experiences,” Stover said. Fans of the games bond over the trials and tribulations they faced in their respective times playing them, and in may ways it brings them closer together.
From Software has taken notice of this fact too, most notably in the ways that they have expanded and improved the player vs. player combat system upon seeing its popularity. It’s easy to infer from this that the developer cares about its fanbase and is open to criticism and making improvements to their games.
Recently, From announced a remastered version of the original Dark Souls game, noting that major community concerns (frame rate drops in certain areas, since-obsolete mechanics) were being taken into consideration to create the definitive Dark Souls experience. This is all indicative of the power of the relationship between fans and creators, and how the developers and players have become their own sort of extended family, bonding over their love for the series.
“Dark Souls 1 is my favourite game of all time, and seeing it come out with fresh graphics and tweaks to the gameplay to make it feel as modern and up to date as Dark Souls 3 excites me. I want more people to experience it like I did, and if they need the modern edge to push it, then so be it,” Stover said, excited about the possibilities of an expanded player base.
What all this says for the future is of course not definite, but exciting. All signs point to From Software attempting to continue their dark fantasy winning streak after Dark Souls Remastered, if the 30 second teaser for their next project, for now untitled but referred to as Shadows Die Twice, is any indication. Whatever the future holds, there is no doubt that the community is still passionate, and they’ll still be playing the Souls series for some time to come.